Sporting culture and Scottish politics

What first springs to your mind when people talk about ‘culture’? Language, poetry, visual art or theatre, perhaps? If you thought of sport, you’re probably in a minority. But why? Sport is as demonstrably intrinsic to Scottish culture as Burns, bad weather and bagpipes. People in Scotland are aware of ‘their team’, the inherited legacy of football support handed down like an ancient banner, waved through generations. So why isn’t sport the first thing we think of when culture comes to mind?

Make no mistake, sport is culture. I don’t think anyone can imagine a civilisation without language, art, stories or song. Similarly, has there ever been a society without its own games and sports, or one that hasn’t found one they identified with and loved? People spread sport just as quickly as language, recipes or works of great artisanship. If the mark of the importance of culture is how many people actively participate in it, then sport is the finest achievement in Scottish culture.

Scotland’s professional football league is the most supported per-capita in the world. In 2018, during the league’s opening match weekend, an estimated 1 in 20 people in Scotland attended a football match. Although verifying a stat like this is difficult, the match-day ticket sale count behind it is convincing. There is little else in our nation that can boast such mass-participation or attendance. Of all the former mainstays of working class life in Scotland – the kirks, the unions, the Labour Party, the papers, the library, the repertory theatres – only sporting events enjoy a similar turnout to that of a century ago.

Scotland’s contribution to world sport cannot be understated. Scots invented the rules of modern football, introduced the beautiful game to countries such as Brazil, and played in the first ever international football and rugby matches. Murrayfield, Scotland’s largest sports stadium, is frequently filled to full capacity. Scotland is home to nearly half of the UK’s professional ice hockey clubs. Emerging from the ancient Celtic world, shinty and hurling are arguably the progenitors to all European stick-and-ball games such as hockey, ice hockey, bandy, and perhaps even cricket. If sport is culture, then Scotland is a cultural powerhouse.

Of course, we’re not Europe’s only sporting nation. Other European nations have done a much better job of politically protecting sport’s cultural importance. The legacy of the Spanish Republic is played out on football fields all over Iberia every year. Sport is baked-in to the Irish constitution. France has its own Ministry of Sport, with its own legal code guaranteeing rights to players and supporters. Germany enshrined into law the 50+1 rule, the gold standard for fan’s rights wherein season ticket holders for football clubs must legally own the majority share in those clubs and have the majority vote on club matters.

What, then, has Scotland done for her own sporting legacy after over two decades of devolution? The 2012 Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBA for short) comes to mind; the epitome of the Salmond-era SNP’s working-class relations. Once our pro-Labour newspaper readership and literary culture was the envy of the world. In ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Noam Chomsky wrote at-length about the political and cultural impact of the ill-fated Daily Herald and similar newspapers throughout Britain and Ireland. Our society lost these institutions of pro-working-class written culture to cold, careful, legalistic cultural vandalism. Acts such as the OBA, and whatever likely will come next, put Scotland’s unique sports culture in similar risk of litigation, demonisation and loss. There is hope though, as the OBA was repealed in 2018 through a cross party motion, championed by grassroots football supporters’ activism.

Progressives should take note. Over recent centuries, many great political achievements have been achieved through sport. The advent of the bicycle was perhaps the greatest leap forward for women’s rights since the Middle Ages, allowing much more freedom of movement. Competitive cycling was one of the first sports to have mass female participation and spectators. Chants at football stadiums have created acts of parliament. The Gaelic Athletic Association was instrumental to the success of the Irish independence movement. Benny Rothman, a founder of the British Workers’ Sports Federation, led the Kinder Scout Trespass in 1932. This triggered a tidal-wave of support for the Right-to-Roam movement, who are responsible for Scotland having one of the most progressive land access laws in the world. People have always harnessed the political power of sports: it’s high-time we recognised that.

We should be explicit about our love of sport as culture and start demanding lasting and meaningful policy to protect it. We should pressure political bodies into manifesto changes which support sport and its fans. Given the high participation in football alone, policy of this nature has the potential to be highly popular. To my knowledge, the only political party to currently have protections for football support in its manifesto is the Scottish Green Party. I’d love to say that I joined the Greens for the land reform, banking and environmental policies. Although they definitely played a part, the deciding factor for me was the imaginative, hopeful and positively pro-working-class policy around fan ownership of football clubs. I can well imagine there are many like me. For a Scottish party not to have a sporting policy in its manifesto is simply an own-goal.

Progressives in Scotland who aren’t involved in organised sport in some way or another are missing out on a huge vector for change. There’s a simple solution – participate! Support your local fitba team – all clubs in Scotland have a progressive support base to work with. Play five-a-side with some mates – it doesn’t matter if you’re bad, you’ll get better. Form a hiking club – start with friends at first and expand from there. Have a go at badminton at your local community centre. Even go for a run once in a while – it’s amazing how good it is for your physical and mental health. Most sports have taster sessions for beginners, get yourself along to them. The cultural heritage of sports belongs to everybody. Make the most of it. Besides, you’re more likely to change the world kicking a ball around a field than you are to change anything sitting in another committee meeting.

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